By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) – Pope Francis called for nature to be protected from criminal abuse on Saturday during a visit in the southern Italian town of Caserta, near Naples, in a region long blighted by illegal toxic waste dumps and the pervasive grip of the Camorra mafia.
During a televised open air mass before around 200,000 people, Francis said that the love of God meant respecting life, the environment and nature.
“I know that you suffer for these things,” he said in an impromptu remarks during his homily in front of the Reggia di Caserta, the former palace of the old Bourbon kings of Naples.
“It is particularly important in this beautiful region of yours which requires being protected and conserved, it requires us to have the courage to say no to any form of corruption and illegality,” he said to applause from the crowd.
“We all know what the name of these forms of corruption and illegality are,” he said.
While less explicit than his fierce attack on the mafia during a visit to Calabria last month, when he said those who followed the mafia’s “path of evil” were “excommunicated”, the setting of his words left no doubt of his target.
Now blighted by crime, corruption and chronically high unemployment, the region around Naples, known in ancient times as “Campania felix”, should be one of the most fertile areas of Italy due to the rich volcanic soil from Mount Vesuvius.
Instead, it has become notorious for the “terra dei fuochi”, or the “fire country”, polluted for decades by uncontrolled dumping and burnoffs of toxic waste that have been blamed for unusually high levels of cancers and other diseases.
Caserta itself lies just outside the so-called “Triangle of Death”, where the mortality rates are at their highest, but it is considered one of the strongholds of the Camorra, the Campania mafia, which is behind much of the illegal waste disposal.
“This magnificent region has been particularly hurt by so many deposits of waste from other parts of Italy and Europe which cause death and distress,” Giovanni D’Alise the bishop of Caserta said during the mass. “And there is no shortage of criminality and corruption in our region,” he said.
The Argentina-born Francis has repeatedly attacked the Italian mafia, launching his strongest condemnation during last month’s visit to Calabria, home of the group known as “Ndrangheta”, one of the most feared crime syndicates in the world.
The pope’s trip to Caserta, where he celebrated mass in honor of the town’s patron Saint Anne, was originally intended as a private visit to see a Pentecostal pastor he befriended in Argentina.
After pressure on the Vatican for the pope to make the visit to Caserta a public one, a separate, strictly private meeting with Pastor Giovanni Traettino is now expected on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Hannah Rantala, editing by G Crosse)